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Lawsuit Challenges “Wealth-Based” Bail Procedures

Attorney says bail scheme is "debtors' prison"

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Civil rights attorneys in Jacksonville filed a federal class action lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 30 seeking new procedures for how bail is determined for misdemeanor arrestees. Currently, the lawsuit alleges, judges in the Fourth Judicial Circuit use a standard bond schedule for misdemeanor defendants and, when setting bail for pretrial release, don't inquire about individuals' ability to pay those predetermined amounts. The current system, plaintiffs contend, results in poor people having to remain in jail as they await trial because they can't pay to get out, while more affluent defendants are awarded pre-trial release almost immediately.

According to the lawsuit, using a pre-determined bond schedule without regard for an arrestee's ability to make bail violates due process and equal protection protections in both the United States and Florida Constitutions.

Civil rights attorney Bill Sheppard and his firm, Sheppard, White, Kachergus & DeMaggio, filed the lawsuit, which seeks declaratory and injunctive relief regarding bail for misdemeanor arrestees in Jacksonville.

"The Duval County Jail is seriously overcrowded," Sheppard said in a written statement to Folio Weekly, "in part because the Sheriff is holding misdemeanants solely because of their inability to pay their way out of jail. Long ago, Charles Dickens wrote about debtors' prisons-and that's all this is."

Plaintiffs are asking the U.S. District Court to declare both the predetermined bond schedule and the failure to inquire about arrestees' financial status unconstitutional. They also want the court to enjoin judges in the Fourth Judicial Circuit and agents of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office from further use of the current "wealth-based detention" system, and to issue whatever orders the court deems necessary toward those ends.

The three named plaintiffs represent misdemeanor arrestees who are in jail now, the lawsuit says, only because they are indigent. The lawsuit names Sheriff Mike Williams and Chief Judge Mark Mahon as defendants.

"The money bail is the moment of differential treatment," the lawsuit reads. "A person with financial resources will be released almost immediately after bail is imposed but Defendants will require the detention of a person who cannot afford to pay his or her bail. This policy or practice results in systematic and automatic wealth-based detention in the [Pretrial Detention Facility]."

Folio Weekly has reached out to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office for comment and will update this story accordingly.

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